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January 2018

An image that encapsulates my life

By Autobiography, in English No Comments
I’m thinking about how I could use a single image to summarise my life.

Think of the cover image of a book, an image that’s intended to symbolise its contents. In a similar way, I’m looking for images that encapsulates the content of my life.

At first I thought that a photograph could perhaps do the job. Innumerable biographies and autobiographies have a photo of the protagonist on the cover for exactly that reason. (My biography of Niels Jerne was no exception). But the problem with photographs, I think, is that they are too contextual: it’s difficult to view them without thinking about when and where and under what circumstances they were shot. By putting a photo of myself on the cover of the autobiography I single out a snapshot of myself at a specific place and moment in time. And that’s not what I’m looking for.

I’m looking for something less contextual, something that catches the timeless ‘essence’ — and I’m deliberately using the metaphysical e-word, sorry about that, all contextualists out there — of me in a single image. Something like what Plutarch called a “slight deed” (πρᾶγμα βραχὺ), for example, a word in passing or a small gesture, which often, he said, reveals more of a person’s character and disposition (ἦθος) than his public appearance or deeds (in Plutarch’s famous opening to his Alexander biography).

I don’t rule out the possibility of actually finding a photograph that reveals my character over time. But so far, I haven’t found one, and therefore I’ve also thought about other kinds of images, like caricatures or allegories.

The problem with caricatures is that they are usually drawn by (street) artists, who don’t know anything about the subject’s personality, but make the drawing from the physiognomy only. And I’m not interested in my physiognomy; I’m interested in an image that reveals my character (my disposition, my habitus), and I don’t know of any caricature artist who knows me well enough to catch this aspects of me.

So what about allegory then? I’m not thinking about the autobiography as an allegory (cf. David Herman, “Autobiography, allegory, and the construction of self”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 35 (4) 1995, p.351+), I’m thinking of allegorical images as summaries of lives. For example, in earlier post I’ve characterised myself as a typical intellectual fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. So Archilochus’ proverbial fox might be a good allegorical summary of my life — and a fitting cover for the autobiography.

But there are most probably other, and perhaps better, possibilities. So I’m continuing my search for good allegorical images (as well as habitus-revealing photographs). And those of you, who think you know me well, are very welcome to send me images which you think encapsulate my personality and life.

(image from here)

Adopted from a Facebook post published 4 January, 2018, which gave rise to some comments: Read More